A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

by Dylan Thomas
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The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

“A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” a poem of twenty-four lines divided into four stanzas of six lines each, follows the rhyme scheme abcabc. The title indicates the poet’s rejection of conventional means of responding to death. The refusal takes on greater force as it confronts the senseless casualty of a child to war; the fire refers to the firebombing of London during World War II.

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The poem is written in the first person, and more is revealed about the poet who speaks than about the child who has died. The poet declares that not until he himself dies will he declaim the child’s death. He rejects somber elegies, with their toxic spirituality; in dying, the child has united with the elements from which life springs and therefore is no longer prey to death.

The poem opens boldly with an extended adjective—“mankind/ making/ Bird, beast and flower/ Fathering and all humbling”—that modifies “darkness.” The image locates the origin of life in death. The poet thus evokes at the start the natural cycle of birth and death. The darkness signals the “last light breaking”—light indicating consciousness—as well as the stilling of the “sea tumbling in harness,” or the blood surging through the body. Death, then, extinguishes both the psychic and physical signs of an individual life.

This loss is more accurately a transformation: Single life diffuses into universal life. After death, one must “enter again” the “Zion of the water bead” and the “synagogue of the ear of corn.” Rather than personal immortality, humans are destined for incorporation into dynamic, elemental bonds or assemblages of freshly sprouting life. Once metamorphosed, the poet can convey the child’s experience in death, embodying the substance and vitality of nature itself.

Gripped by this awareness, the poet views customary rituals of mourning as sterile and hollow. To presume to honor the child with such pieties is to “murder” her humanity; to dare to sanctify her “innocence and youth” is to “blaspheme” the Incarnate Christ. With the phrase “the stations of the breath,” the poet alludes to “the stations of the Cross,” a ritualization of Jesus’ suffering—again fusing life (“breath”) and death.

In death, the girl joins life—that is, the “long friends,” those long dead and forever alive—the “grains beyond age,” or the seeds and sands of time, and the “dark veins of her mother,” or the earth, veined with rivers. The water of the “riding Thames,” London’s river as the child is “London’s daughter,” is “unmourning”; it is the water of renewal, vital and teeming with life. Water quenches fire and nourishes seed, and just as rivers pour into the sea—all water being one—individual life flows into universal life, all life being one.

The ambiguity of the poem’s last line, “After the first death, there is no other,” suspends contraries in a vision of wholeness. Nature is compelled toward regeneration; therefore, while a death is final, life itself is eternal.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 270

Fellow poet Conrad Aiken has called Dylan Thomas a “born language-lover” with a “genius for word magic.” Thomas’s passion for words is revealed in his conjuring of their sensual appeal as well as their connotative power.

The texture of the poem is enriched by the sound pattern woven by the poet. Besides the tight rhyme scheme, alliteration, as in “mankind making,” “last light,” and “sow my salt seed,” helps draw the reader’s senses into the world of the poem.

The poet also chooses words for the richness of their associations: “Zion,” “synagogue,” “pray,” “sackcloth,” “blaspheme,” and “first death” are all radiant with religious significance. Juxtaposition of such terms with natural imagery—“water bead,” “ear of corn,” “sound,” “valley,” “grains”—indicates Thomas’s understanding of the sacramental force of nature: The symbols of religious myth and ritual owe their potency to a link with primordial, natural realities.

The poet communicates such visionary insight with his complex imagery. “Zion of the water bead,” for example, merges a symbol from religious legend, “Zion,” with an original metaphor inspired by nature, “water bead.” The complexity of Thomas’s imagery renders it dynamic; the image provokes a reader to resolve the tensions between its disparate parts. Readers’ preconceptions of science and religion, nature and myth, and past, present, and future are dramatically challenged.

As envisioned by the poet, human and natural life are of the same stuff. He envisions the human body as a microcosm of nature; the circular system is “the sea tumbling in harness.” At the same time, he personifies nature: “grains” are “friends,” and London’s earth has “dark veins.”

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